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Birnbaum v.

Dale Peck

Being the most hated man in literature isn’t easy, but it helps to have a backbone of lauded novels behind you, plus an actual hatchet for publicity stunts.

Dale Peck, the author of three previous novels Now It’s Time to Say Goodbye, The Law of Enclosures, and Martin and John, and the self-described ‘most hated man in literature,’ has just published his new novel What We Lost. As it states on the cover, the book is ‘based on a true story,’ his father’s. Peck was born on Long Island, grew up in Kansas, teaches at the New School, and has lived in Manhattan for the past eight years. The New Press will be publishing a collection of his book critiques, Hatchet Jobs, in the Spring of 2004

Peck’s infamy stems in large part from his hypercritical reviews of his contemporaries, the most quoted of which concerns Rick Moody and begins with echoes of Allan Ginsberg’s Howl, ‘Rick Moody is the worst writer of his generation.’ Peck acknowledges what he terms the ‘indecent amount of ink devoted to his book reviews,’ including the recent James Atlas profile in the New York Times magazine.

In our talk below Peck dismisses the profile as ‘not about anything’ and ‘a ridiculous piece of literary gossip.’ True to the form of Peck’s bad boy persona, the ubiquitous Steve Almond didn’t see it that way, ‘Profile may be the wrong word, though. Hagiography is probably closer to the mark. The piece manages to be both woefully naive and deeply cynical at the same time.’ And then there is the Peck spoof and of course the Brits have their own take on Peck: ‘There is a new verb in the U.S.: to Peck. Or an old verb with a new meaning. Dale Peck is a literary one man bandit—he trashes everything he reads.’

 

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Robert Birnbaum: Are you Dale Peck III?

Dale Peck: My grandfather’s name is Lloyd. My father [Dale Peck] has the older half-brother, Dale Peck.

RB: Does that make you Dale Peck 2.5?

DP: It just says ‘junior’ on my—actually, it doesn’t say ‘junior.’ It just says ‘Dale Peck.’

RB: Why does ‘based on a true story’ appear on the cover of What We Lost? What does it mean to say a novel is based on a true story?

DP: I think it means that genre tags are really inadequate.

RB: You could have put ‘genre tags are really inadequate’ on the cover instead.

DP: Yes, yes. The original subtitle—I never had a subtitle—the original subtitle that they came up with was ‘a story from my father’s childhood.’ Which sounded rather fey. The basic reason is that part of it’s real and part is made up. The basic backbone of the entire first part of the book is all real but obviously little things like dialogue and internal thoughts are recreated. Occasionally chronology is squashed a little bit just so it can fit in the space. And then a couple of incidents are out and out made up for the sake of illustrating certain points that I wanted to make about my father’s story. And the second part of the book is—to the best of my ability to do so—entirely true. I am a stickler when it comes to calling something nonfiction. I would never shelve this book under nonfiction—even though I might publish it as some kind of creative memoir. Also, it seemed equally untrue to call it a novel, when every time I wanted to swerve away I couldn’t. I would always make myself come back to the facts such as I knew them or the story as my father had presented it to me. Houghton [Mifflin] had originally planned upon publishing it as a novel and—

RB: You had originally planned to write a novel?

DP: Well, I originally planned to write a book and I told them when I sold it to them I didn’t care if they published it as a novel or as a memoir. It’s the kind of question that’s been settled, among writers at any rate, for a very long time. Sometimes you make it up and sometimes you draw from life. Very often you mix the two, and I don’t think we really care anymore.

RB: May I surmise that the tag line, ‘based on a true story,’ is the publisher’s decision? To help the reader?

DP: Yes. As tag lines go it’s about accurate as they come. It’s based on a true story, which implies, obviously, that it’s not all true but that some part of it is.

RB: The broader implication is that since such a clarification doesn’t appear on other book jackets, that they are not based on true stories?

DP: I never understood that. I always got confused in English classes and such where you would be reading Colette and then they would tell you it was based on such-and-such love affair and they would tell you the name of the real person and all this kind of thing. And I’d think, ‘Why did she write the novel and all that?’ And at the end of the day I would think that it was not terrifically important to me when you choose not to indulge in or claim that particular weightiness that attaches to the claim of truth. Which is part of the reason I considered publishing this book as a novel. I didn’t want to make too great a claim to the truth here. These are things that actually happened to my father. His reaction to them is something I can only base on my own observations of what he said. And to some degree, as in any act of writing like this, part of what I am trying to do is give voice to feelings that I feel like he has never been able to fully express. Or else the story would not be as resonant as it is in our family history.

RB: How reliable a narrator is he?

DP: When he tells the story? Terrifically unreliable. Or maybe I am an unreliable listener, I don’t know. My understanding of the story has changed constantly as I have grown up. For years and years I thought that my father actually went to live on the farm because his father had died. His father actually died when he was 17—two years or so after this story ends. They were very poor, and I thought that he had been parceled off to save money. And then I discovered much later that it was his father that had taken him up there. How long he was up there was always very vague to me. The conditions under which he went back were always vague. When my father originally told the story it tended to be the kind of story that came out when he was drunk. So it was whatever he chose to remember at that particular moment. And he was very selective. I had a really, really shocking moment—because I wanted this story to reflect my father’s experience and because my father has an impossibly large and complicated family, I elected not to go for everybody’s versions of things. And I elected not to make this a big sprawling multigenerational family saga because, quite frankly, I think all of my father’s brothers and sisters probably have stories that deserve to be told and I wasn’t going to tell them all. I was doing my father’s. One of my aunts came to the reading that I gave in New York City and afterwards she came up to me and told me two or three really amazing stories right off the bat. The first was that my grandfather used to bring home mental patients from the hospital [he worked at] and he would sell them open food out of the fridge to get a little bit of money. And the second was an amazing story in which he was so drunk that he tried to make her hang up the laundry on the clothesline but that the laundry was a bag of garbage, which he seemed not to realize. And she was hanging up cereal boxes and fruit peelings on the laundry line.

RB: What was the cough medicine he was addicted to?

DP: It was Robitussin, terpin hydrate. I think it’s still available but I am not sure if still has codeine in it. [Actually, one brand of Robitussin does include codeine. Terpin hydrate is a generic drug often prescribed in tandem with codeine.—ed.] There are very interesting websites devoted to it.

RB: [laughs]

DP: Apparently, if you can get it, it produces the closest thing to a Quaalude high that’s still available. But then the last story she told me was something that was one of those things that reminds me why I am so nervous about writing about my family. She claims that my grandfather had tuberculosis and that’s how he became addicted to this cough syrup, a fact that my father has never mentioned. Ever. Just completely passed by. And not the kind of thing that you would think to ask.

RB: Did your father know? Tuberculosis is an odd disease in that it wasn’t always clearly diagnosed.

DP: Right, and it was curable at that point. He worked in a hospital. I don’t know.

RB: Would there have been stigma attached?

DP: It’s just one of those things, one of those omissions that pop up in my family life. Like finding out my father had an older half-brother with the same name as him. That is something I learned in my 20s. It just never came up, though my father had known for years and years.

RB: I am fond of and favor David Shields’s view of writing that essentially autobiography streams into all that we write. One can disclaim that is what is happening but really somehow our choices are there and any number of things have our autobiographical fingerprints on them. Why is it important to create these boundaries or categories? Is there a difference between fiction truth and nonfiction truth?

DP: I think there is a difference to the moral weight that attaches to it. It’s one of the reasons I have problems with Tim O’Brien’s writing. Because he lies and he tells you that he lies. And then he tells you that it doesn’t make a difference.


With this particular book when somebody gets something wrong, I find myself getting, ‘Goddamn, that’s my father! You are not talking about some character that I made up!


RB: Many writers would gleefully tell you that they are professional liars.

DP: Yeah, you said that in your interview with Vendela Vida, and it’s true we do. It’s one of my stock lines. I say it all the time. It’s true we lie. For me the categories are sometimes very important and sometimes not all. In this particular instance, it was really important for me to insist upon that the basis in my family situations [was true] whereas when I wrote my first novel, Martin and John, it was really important for me to insist upon on the utter fictionality of all these things, despite the fact that there were these clear surface similarities between the family that I was writing about and my own family. The alcoholic father, the abused mother or absent mother, the gay son. Long Island and Kansas as two locales. Despite all of that I felt like I was arriving at very abstracted, very arbitrary personal renderings of narratives that I had made up and all that. I was not rendering the truth of my own experience at all. These were stories for a theme, to illustrate a particular idea. Whereas in What We Lost, it seemed very important to arrive at something, it’s hard to say what kind of truth to call it. It’s not historical truth. There are all kinds of gaps in the records but it reflects a family experience which is filled with all kinds of inconsistencies of fact and differences of opinion as to what actually happened and as to what things mean. But just the emotional core of the experience is something—when I talk about this experience with family members, it’s privileged conversation and there isn’t that same kind of conversation for anything else that I have written and I know that it’s distinct. And even if it’s only in those particular moments, I know that it’s distinct. Or when I read somebody writing about this particular book and they get something wrong, I get mad in a way that I never get. Book reviewers make so many mistakes; it’s just unbelievable. I say that as someone who has written a lot of book reviews and caught my own little mistakes. ‘He wasn’t 13, he was 16.’ ‘The house wasn’t blue, it was brown.’ The little things that you remember so clearly from the text that weren’t in the text. With this particular book when somebody gets something wrong, I find myself getting, ‘Goddamn, that’s my father! You are not talking about some character that I made up!’ And those little reactions remind me that I am thinking of this differently. I don’t know if other people do or not.

RB: You are reminding me of two things. On a number of occasions I have asked Alan Furst about this obligation to the historical facts and truth. His answer is that he is absolutely committed to the historical record because so much blood has been shed around these details. And when I was talking to Edward Jones recently, whose novel The Known World is about black slave owners in Virginia in the 1850s, I asked him about his research and how much he tries to get it right. Jones says that all he is concerned with is that he doesn’t say anything that makes the reader think any different than what he has presented. He wouldn’t present a dialogue with two slaves and have one of them saying, ‘Yo, dawg, it’s cool.’

DP: I have great sympathy toward both views. It depends on what your goal is in the text. One of things I always insist upon in my own writing and whenever I am speaking to students is that you do not pretend that things are real which are not real. Novelists in particular have no particular duty to get anything right whatsoever. But you do have a duty not to pretend that you are getting it right if you are [not] and not to pass things off as the gospel truth if that’s not what they are.


I have this sense that human beings spend most of their lives with more or less of a layer of culture between them and the life they are actually living. That there is always something getting in the way. And that a good story points that out.


RB: To what or whom do they have a duty?

DP: It depends. To the reader, to one’s self, to—if there is indeed some kind of abstract or Platonic idea of truth one wants to pay homage to. That sort of thing…

RB: If you have rules or principles as you have expressed here, it suggests there is some end in mind, that literature is for something. What’s it for?

DP: Gosh, so many people will quibble about that. I have spent my whole life wondering exactly what the answer to that question is. The first thing I have to say is that it is an unanswerable question. One of the fascinating things about literature is that it’s an absolutely unnecessary product that people for whatever reasons seem to think is vital. And that in and of itself makes it incredibly precious to me.

RB: Is storytelling co-equivalent with literature?

DP: Sure, sure.

RB: And your view is that it is not essential?

DP: It’s essential only in the sense that people want it. Obviously we don’t need it to live. Joan Didion’s famous line, ‘We tell stories in order to live,’ is a metaphor. We need food, clothing, water.

RB: We have never tried living without stories. Has any civilization lived without stories?

DP: It depends how deep you want to go.

RB: I would argue that storytelling is an essential human activity. I am not clear that there is something that is essentially human, but I do think that this sharing of legend and myth is central to what we are as humans.

DP: I wonder if it is a natural byproduct of language? If it’s escapable? For me, storytelling—and it doesn’t matter whether it’s fiction or something that calls itself memoir or criticism—storytelling is about bringing the context into focus and bringing the thing that context usually brings into focus. I have this sense that human beings spend most of their lives with more or less of a layer of culture between them and the life they are actually living. That there is always something getting in the way. And that a good story points that out. It doesn’t shatter that. It doesn’t strive toward some ridiculous idea that you experience life exactly as it is. You can’t. I just don’t think it’s possible. But it reminds you that you are in essence following some script. Sometimes a very small one, sometimes an overarching predetermining one. And maybe that script is taking you places you don’t particularly want to be going. And you want to tweak that. For me, that’s the moral heart at the center of storytelling—is to step back a little and point out the ways in which so many assumptions, learned patterns and behaviors just dictate to us and guide us in ways that we don’t think about.




Dale Peck, shot by R. Birnbaum
Dale Peck, photograph by Robert Birnbaum


RB: As you are starting to write this story, which is deeply personal, are you thinking about whom you would want to read it?

DP: In this case—always the answer to that is yes. I had a very strong desire to make the book readable to my father. In this particular case because the story belonged, not to me but to my father. My earlier novels are very literary; complex in their structure and occasionally in their language, sometimes in the sorts of character situations they depict as well. One of the other ways in which I distinguished this book from my earlier fiction is that those books are definitely about me, about things that I think. And this book, as much as I could make it not about that—of course that’s never going to be entirely escapable—I’m writing it. But this book was about discovering something that somebody else thought, in this case, my father, and making that fully present to me and thus fully present to the reader as well. He was always the weirdly ideal reader for this particular text. At the same time I really believe that literature is never, ever, ever a private act. If it is in fact literature, then it has to be available to other people. That’s one of the reasons, again, why this is based on a true story and not a true story. Because when I sat down to write it, I realized I had enough material for maybe 40 pages of straight biography. And 40 pages in this day and age are not anything. It’s too long for a short story. It’s too short to be published independently. Inside a book of stories, it will disappear. It will not have any kind of singular life. Which I really wanted this particular story to have. And so, hence, the need to invent things, primarily dialogue. And thought can turn something very small into something much bigger.

RB: In the story there are two parts. The first part takes up two years in real time—

DP: Eighteen months. Sixteen months, something like that.

RB: And then the second part, much more compact, covers a little over a day? It ends with the brothers embracing. The second part is more like a coda—

DP: The second part is so many different things. Among other things, it is in lieu of a moral. In lieu of the rest of the story.

RB: Is that where the title plays out?

DP: The title was solicited from me. The original title was Greenfield, the name of the town, and my editor solicited another title from me and What We Lost has been a title that has been kicking around in my files since I started writing—it’s one of my favorite titles ever and it really belongs to a short story that I will probably never ever, ever finish. I have two different approaches. Which is either I get a title and the story is there immediately, present to me and I follow from it. Or else I write a book and write a book and write a book and can never title it. And as it’s leaving the door it has a title put on it, at the very end. The Law of Enclosures did not want a title. It didn’t want a title at all.

RB: I wonder if anyone has seriously published a book entitled, Untitled?

DP: I don’t know. On the train up here I was listening to that Sigur Ros album which is Untitled. And all the tracks are untitled. They just have two parentheses. I have a story that was originally published as ‘Untitled’ that later on got a title.

RB: Visual artists freely do that. Isn’t there a book called Winner of the National Book Award?

DP: Yes, and Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius is a similar kind of thing, a meta-thing going on. I have thought about doing untitled books at certain points but then almost always a title suggests itself.


To me the novel is nothing more than a strongly expressed opinion and so it seems like the only thing you can respond to it with that is even remotely worthwhile is an equally strongly expressed opinion. Whether it’s for or against…Sometimes I feel when the two ideas butt up against each other you actually get the sense of a visible outline.


RB: Ever thought about publishing something without your name on it? [laughs]

DP: I have thought of publishing lots of things pseudonymonously—as the most-hated man in publishing. I have thought all the time of publishing things under different names. I don’t because for me the association of a text with a consciousness that created it is probably paramount in my understanding of literature. I absolutely refuse to accept any notion of universal truth, of things delivered from on high, for which a writer is merely a channel. I find that sort of thing to be complete and utter bullshit.

RB: Do you note the extremity of literary personalities becoming adjuncts to the greater celebrity culture? And if you do, isn’t that distracting?

DP: Oh sure. Literature went rock star about the time I started publishing. Before that there were famous writers and there were cults of celebrity or legend that surrounded writers. But the whole packaging of it from the agent to the advance to the cult of fandom and that sort of thing has gone so completely rock star in the last 10 years.

RB: That would be one argument for anonymizing, though it seems too Soviet or totalitarian a gesture…

DP: I think a lot of times now when I am dealing with the indecent amount of ink that is being spilled over my book reviews that, would it have been better if I had published them anonymously? You go back and pick through the reviews that the modernists were writing about each other and they were all nasty, nasty, but they were all unsigned. Of course, what that led to was everyone trying to figure out who wrote what, and it’s not like Virginia Woolf and E.M. Forster and T.S. Eliot did not have very particular writing styles and very particular sensibilities that I am sure one could spot 60 miles away. Especially if you were reading and writing them in their day.

RB: You don’t subscribe to the notion offered by Gertrude Stein that artists should never be criticized?

DP: No, I think artists should be criticized all the time. Constantly, constantly, constantly. I don’t think I could say it any other way. If I just said that the novel has no essential role to play in life despite the fact that it’s one of the most precious products of our culture, then the role of the critic must be even that much more ephemeral. To me the novel is nothing more than a strongly expressed opinion and so it seems like the only thing you can respond to it with that is even remotely worthwhile is an equally strongly expressed opinion. Whether it’s for or against…Sometimes I feel when the two ideas butt up against each other you actually get the sense of a visible outline…

RB: I do have this image of an obese guy surrounded by his trough of carbs and brewskis, watching a sporting event, yelling at the TV that various athletes are bums. The absurdity of some couch slug insulting gifted and skilled professional athletes is the image I carry about much criticism. People who can’t or haven’t done the thing that they are critiquing. So much of contemporary cultural commentary shows no sign of respect for the efforts or sensitivity to ambitious experiment.




Dale Peck, shot by R. Birnbaum
Dale Peck, photograph by Robert Birnbaum


DP: If you think of [Edmund] Wilson, he was a terrible novelist and a terrible poet…

RB: Some people [Stanley Edgar Hyman] might argue he was a terrible essayist, too.

DP: I forget but I think it was Hyman. I think they were pretty damn great. He is a fantastic critic. It depends; the critical facility in whatever way it manifests itself is like the ability to write fiction—some special gift. It’s much more like being able to run fast or sing well than it is learning a set of skills.

RB: I read James Sallis in a review of Michael Dirda’s memoir scorn the notion of a literary press in the U.S. Any thoughts?

DP: I could argue there is a huge literary culture and it’s almost entirely bogus.

RB: [laughs]

DP: I sort of agree with the snideness of the tone because I think contemporary literary culture is so out of whack. Whether it’s the incredible dullness of the New Yorker or the incredible solipsism of McSweeney’s or whatever it might be. The problem is, of course, that it’s the same thing with trying to criticize the publishing industry. The publishing industry sucks, but it’s filled with all kinds of well-intentioned talented people who do good work, many of whom I have been fortunate enough to work with.

RB: How long did you live in Kansas?

DP: I moved there when I was seven and left to go to college when I was 18.

RB: What feelings do you have about Kansas?

DP: I always think of Kansas as this place that was alien to me when I lived there and very familiar to me when I left.

RB: Did your living in Kansas affect how you see life here on the East Coast?

DP: Um, I don’t know. I don’t really believe in anything like predestination but I just always knew I was going to live in New York. I was just waiting to go to New York my entire life. That was just what it was going to be. And I didn’t do particularly well in high school and I didn’t even take the SATs and all that. It was really hard for me to find a school that would let me in on the East Coast.

RB: Why didn’t you do well in high school?

DP: Because my high school was horrible. Because I came from a working class family in which the idea of doing well was getting a B—and in hindsight from having then gone to a decent school—it was an embarrassingly easy class. I went to four years of high school and never once took homework home. It was not something I needed to do. And after a couple of years of that, if there was something I couldn’t get done in class, I wouldn’t do it.

RB: I am wondering how much your growing up in Kansas affected the way that you look at this very insular world here in the Northeast. I ask this as an expatriated Chicagoan and I have that Saul Steinberg New Yorker cover in mind, where New York City takes up most of the map of the U.S.

DP: That’s one of the best things ever in the world.

RB: I was trying to get a part for something and the company called me back and the woman was really nice and I knew that the company was located in Andover, Kan. So we talked about Kansas and her relatives in Chicago and we had a fine conversation. Somehow I don’t think that would have taken place if someone from an East Coast-based business had even bothered to call me back.

DP: I have lived in the same place for eight years and I feel I have an experience of New York City that is very much like E.B. White’s very famous comment in Here Is New York, that New York is a series of small neighborhoods. This morning I was walking to the bank and I was walking by the guy who does my laundry, he said hello to me, three blocks away from where I usually see him. I recognized him but I was shocked he recognized me. He must see thousands of people walking in and out if there. And I went to same place, the coffee shop I go to every morning and when I did not sit down to have my coffee—they remarked on it…it’s familial. New York for me was always something that felt like it was waiting for me or I was waiting for it. It was very strange and there were all kinds of ways that I had to accustom myself to it. And there are some aspects of New York City that I have never accustomed myself to. I can’t take the sight of homeless people begging—it fills me with enormous sadness. And not the able-bodied drunks but the guy who for two years I would see once a month, with no legs on a skateboard, going between cars on the subway, I’d be thinking, ‘How can I live in a place where this man is not being taken care of by the state?’ The squalor and the misery that is exhibited openly in New York City, that is paraded in front of your eyes—I think I have had to work very hard not to close myself off to it, like so many New Yorkers do, not to look the other way. And at the same time not to be the rube from the sticks who gawks and gets taken in by everything that’s going around. If you are going to function in the city, life requires screening and making some choices about what is going to pop up on the radar.


When I read Rick Moody’s The Black Veil, what made me sad was this idea that this person with the privileged upbringing thought that his sorrow, for some reason, didn’t merit because he shouldn’t feel bad and so it came with a different package. I thought when your pain comes through it’s incredibly palpable and important. Why wasn’t that enough?


RB: Did your feeling that you were going to end up in New York have anything to do with your being gay?

DP: I think it must have. It had to. Obviously urban centers are historically—and much more so for people of my age—associated with places where gay people would go and collect.

RB: What about San Francisco or Chicago or Miami? That doesn’t explain why you chose New York City.

DP: I don’t think I ever wanted to—oh God, Miami—[shrugs and makes facial expression of extreme distaste]

RB: [laughs]

DP: That’s why not Miami. I never wanted to be professionally gay. It wasn’t anything like that. I never saw it as—coming out didn’t seem to me to be the same thing as adopting a whole set of moral beliefs and behavior patterns and all that kind of thing. I wanted to go someplace where the boyfriend pool was large and that was about it. Every other aspect of gay culture I felt like I could take or leave on an individual basis or something like that.

RB: In your lifetime has being gay gotten easier?

DP: It depends. On the most basic level, wildly so. There is just no denying it.

RB: What do you define as ‘basic’?

DP: The fact that gay people are more visible and more talked about and there are far more places that you can go as a gay man and hold your boyfriend’s hand in the street and far more conversations that one can have where one doesn’t have to worry…on the one hand when I go home to Kansas I have this incredibly dislocated sense of people perceiving me as straight, which always shocks me. I don’t think of myself as particularly straight-acting fellow or as the most flamboyant queen in the world. I feel like that most people can meet me and say, ‘He is a well-groomed man in his 30s; he must be gay.’ And then I go home and people think that I am straight and then if I spend a certain amount of time with a stranger I can actually feel this creeping sense of unease that there is something not quite right. Especially, when I go to the mall and I go shopping and start talking about clothes in a certain way. There will be a certain double take there.

RB: In the second part of What We Lost Gloria is talking to her sisters and they observe that the younger character is gay. Why did you want them to recognize that and make it a topic of conversation? That’s the only time except for a reference to the colors of porches where ‘gay’ is mentioned.

DP: I think ‘gay’ appears in the text only two times. I don’t know if you read the New York Times review or not?

RB: Andrew O’Hagan’s? Nah.

DP: There are two places in the text where I think ‘gay’ is used and both of those were fundamentally, as nearly as I could do it, recreations of what happened. I had several conversations with Gloria and she lives in small farm upstate and she comes from a family of five children, two of whom are gay. At a certain point I felt like she was dropping these hints. She kept saying these weirdly vague amorphous things about her brother and I couldn’t figure out what she was trying to tell me. Finally because we were all sitting down at the lunch table when my father went off with Donny and her sisters went off somewhere and the hired hand was off somewhere else, when she had me alone, she told me her brother was gay. And I realized that we were 110 miles away from New York City and we had come to a place where you didn’t out somebody in front of his or her parents because you weren’t sure if their parents knew and if it was OK. And again, it’s like this weird dislocation and so I felt like yes, this was a part of her experience of us on a particular day, wondering whether or not I was gay.

RB: No rancor or any hint of something negative.

DP: She loves her brother and her sister.

DP: Why is the book partly dedicated to her, and did I miss something—in the book she is just on the farm where one of your father’s past coworkers still works—there is no greater or secret relationship? And later, as you have said, you return to talk with her. Why?

DP: Because she is so nice. I talked to her for a couple of reasons. I wanted to use her real name and I wanted to write about her. But she is one of the nicest persons I have ever met. I never thought about writing this book until after we met her. Literally the day after we met her the idea for writing this book came up to me. Even though I had planned this very elaborate, and from a writer’s point of view, symbolic trip of the son and the father who have had a tempestuous relationship going to see a particular spot in the father’s history. And still, it had never occurred to me to do anything with this at all. Until I watched my father charm this girl that I realized that—in the context of revisiting this painful history—for the first time what a miraculous feat of survival my father had done. And how the goodness of his character has survived everything and that’s what she made me realize and that’s why it was important. It’s amazing still. I am sitting here telling you this; I literally get choked up about it when I talk about it, when I read those passages out loud. It’s just shocking to me that he got there. So I went and I said, ‘I am writing this thing about you’—the first time I talked to her—and, ‘I want to ask you what was your experience of my father?’ and she said, ‘I thought he was one of the nicest guys I ever met.’

RB: Even though he tried to sell her his specialized plumbing service? [laughs]

DP: Yes, he will try to sell anyone plumbing.

RB: [laughs] There was a really striking image that I also found amusing. You describe the passage of seagulls and crows over a field chasing field mice in term of a chessboard…

DP: It was a field in Maine that I saw that and it was amazing and so brutal; because it was right after the fields had been mowed and the birds were just slaughtering the field mice. And they were just encroaching on each other—it was like, ‘Get me a piece of paper; I have to write that down.’

RB: My sense of the title comes forward most poignantly when in the very last scene the two half-brothers, the two Dales hug after finally having met. That’s when I thought most about what they had lost…are there other things you were thinking of?

DP: To say the farm is to belabor the obvious. I am going to restate what you say in a different way. It’s the way in which my family lost the ability to express the desire for something else. In my family, it’s the fear that it will always be taken away, no matter what it is.

RB: Isn’t that true for so many people, even those in charmed circumstances?

DP: That’s why books cross boundaries. The most particular story can achieve the most universality because of the power of metaphor and symbol and all these other things. When I read Rick Moody’s The Black Veil, what made me sad was this idea that this person with the privileged upbringing thought that his sorrow, for some reason, didn’t merit because he shouldn’t feel bad and so it came with a different package. I thought when your pain comes through it’s incredibly palpable and important. Why wasn’t that enough? You have to pretend that somehow America had wronged you? I didn’t get that.


I have reached a place of complete and utter dismissiveness when it comes to contemporary fiction. My only goal is to either ignore it or destroy it.


RB: I avoided reading your Moody critique and I skimmed the James Atlas New York Times magazine profile. Frankly, the only thing that bothered me about the Dale Peck brouhaha—because I couldn’t avoid it—was the picture that ran with the magazine piece—the one of you wielding a hatchet. I thought that was extraliterary and something else…

DP: The whole profile was extraliterary.

RB: But it’s in textual form and people can read it or not. But many people will only have one sense of you and they will get it from that photograph.

DP: The thing is with that profile, there are many things that are interesting about it. The Clive James piece that you talk about with [Vendela] Vida, I wrote that piece initially and…

RB: James stole it from you? [laughs]

DP: No, no. I didn’t write that actual piece. I was approached to write that essay and at the same time Atlas was doing this piece on me for the magazine and when the magazine got wind that the op-ed page asked me to do this, they said they would kill the piece, Atlas’s five page magazine piece with photo, if I ran 750 words on the op-ed page.

RB: [laughs]

DP: Obviously in the vast scheme of publicity, one needs five pages in the magazine more than one needs the op-ed page. The op-ed page was my opportunity to say something substantive.

RB: Is that piece available?

DP: Yes. It’s the introduction to my book of essays

RB: Hatchet Jobs, which is being published next spring. Again, that image.

DP: The ‘hatchet jobs’ metaphor is something that is totally mine I have been using for about three years. That I describe at length in the afterword to the book. But it became clear to me when I sat down with James Atlas that his article was not about anything.

RB: [laughs]

DP: It was a ridiculous piece of literary gossip, which I was going to sit through, because it was damned good publicity.

RB: Were you surprised?

DP: No, not at all. I am not familiar with his other work. All I know is when he sat down with me he didn’t ask me any questions about what I was doing. He asked me questions about gossip and I knew immediately that nothing I said at that particular juncture was important. Nevertheless, five pages in the Times magazine were very important. The picture with the hatchet I kind of stand behind forever. I have reached a place of complete and utter dismissiveness when it comes to contemporary fiction. My only goal is to either ignore it or destroy it. I feel no need to…

DP: Why would you read it?

DP: Because I write it.

RB: A number of contemporary writers I have talked to eschew it…

DP: Jeanette Winterson says the same thing. My response to that is, ‘Why the hell should anybody read you?’

RB: I think they would say there is no obligation.

DP: That’s a cop-out. Then why write the books if you don’t think they should be read?

RB: For posterity. There is that terrible statement about being absolved by history or one is leaving a trail.

DP: We all like to think that to some degree. Who knows what if any Shakespeares have disappeared because history didn’t absolve them? My feeling is that we are all in this together and we are all attempting to do the same thing and that we all should be learning from each other.

RB: You seem to have taken the tack of shoving some people out of the lifeboat. [laughs]

DP: I write very nasty reviews but I write nasty reviews of certain parts of books, certain aspects of books. Typically the books that I write bad reviews of are when I discover that kind of fakeness, the fakeness that tries to pass it self off as real. That’s what I am always going after in one form or another. The Philip Roth misogyny that masquerades as some kind of deep understanding.

RB: I had never read any Philip Roth until last week and I picked up American Pastoral and on page 35 I found what I thought was this incredible passage on how we don’t understand each other. I was stunned by it, I thought it was so great, I couldn’t go on reading the book. At any rate, I started thinking about this view of careers in terms of an arc as a misleading image.

DP: I think people have periods. Emily Dickinson—you can see the great middle period that produced all the great poems in the space of about three years. James’s periods are so carefully demarcated by [biographer Leon] Edel. The last three books have this very peculiar quality to them that’s all their own. The middle books, then again, have something. And people will argue which are better. Is it Portrait of a Lady or is it Wings of the Dove. Which is the great moment? Roth’s career has a really definite arc as well. If you think that American Pastoral is good, then read the early books, because those are amazing. And in American Pastoral, it’s Roth on autopilot. And anyone who’s read the Zuckerman Bound books looks upon American Pastoral as a shadow. As someone who always has things to say but who isn’t taking the time to create it like he used to. The trouble with Roth as with almost any writer who is worth his salt is that aspects of him are unbelievably compelling and aspects are unbelievably repellant and you have to put those two together.

RB: Okay, this digression aside, here you are a young man who has published a few books. You have developed a reputation. What are your ambitions?

DP: I probably live more in the future than almost any person I know does and probably even more than any writer I know. When I sat down to write my second book I turned my second book into a sequel to my first book and—I should go back even farther. When I was 20 years old and a senior in college I came up with the ideas for five novels. And I began writing them in order and the first one is my senior thesis and it sits in a drawer. The second one is Martin and John. The third one is Law of Enclosures. I turned it into a sequel for Martin and John and then very promptly planned out a seven-book series, which included the next three books that I have come up with and a couple more ideas. Now It’s Time to Say Goodbye is the third book in that sequence, I have been working on the fourth book for about five years with about a year and half off to write this memoir. I want to work on that series maybe for the rest of my life, who knows?

RB: Like Anthony Powell?

DP: I have never read the Dance to the Music of Time. I have never read Proust either. The relationship between the books is sometimes very close and sometimes very tangential. It wasn’t until I wrote Now It’s Time to Say Goodbye that I began talking about it out loud, ‘Like okay, I can actually do this.’ I was then promptly not able to sell the fourth book in the series when I was told that writing about AIDS, which for me is the common thematic thread that ties the books together, the one piece of real world history in all of the books on top of everything else, when I was told there was no longer an audience for that sort of thing. I am done with criticism, as I have said time and time again

RB: With the publication of Hatchet Jobs?

DP: Yes, with negative reviews, and I am looking for other things.

RB: You teach at the New School.

DP: In the writing program. I want to write a play. I want to write a movie.

RB: So you will be writing for the foreseeable future?

DP: I have always said that if I wasn’t a writer I would be a secretary because it’s my only other skill. I am a very organized person. But yes, writing is…I have never not conceived of a life as a writer since the time I wrote my first story when I was 18 or whatever it was.

RB: Are you a permanent lifelong citizen of New York City?

DP: That, I don’t think so. I think New York City has gotten ridiculously expensive and unpleasant…

RB: Despite the ‘small neighborhood’ charms?

DP: Yeah, yeah. New York always has its plusses and I will probably always have an association with it, but a house in the country has been calling me for many, many years now. I discovered my father’s farm because I was traveling around upstate with my then-boyfriend looking for a house to buy. So I think a residence somewhere upstate appeals to me, possibly even full time. I don’t know, and then I kind of thought that now could be a good time not to be in the United States in general.

RB: I find it very strange that Gore Vidal, who is ferociously disaffected with the state of affairs in the U.S., has moved back here from Italy.

DP: For the next year I am working for Howard Dean or whatever Democrat gets the nomination or whenever Hillary decides to enter the race, I guess. And if a Democrat wins, I will be far more prone to stay, but if George W. Bush is reelected I think I really want to leave and just get the hell out of Dodge.

RB: Is that based on fear or disdain?

DP: Pure and utter disgust, at what he is doing to the American name with American tax dollars. I have contemplated renouncing my citizenship because I find his foreign policy so incredibly repulsive, and it seems like the only way not to give him one’s tax dollars is to leave.

RB: Are you at all discouraged that a fair number of people believe in what George Bush is doing and even commend it?

DP: I am going to use this as an opportunity to circle back and finish an earlier question—you asked if life for gay people had changed in America. I said in many ways yes but the second half of that question is that in some shocking ways, no. And the specific reference was to the review [of What We Lost] that came out in the Times on Sunday. It was treated as a gay book [in the review,] which begins with the line, ‘Though no one wants to say so, when gay men write about fatherhood they are often ruminating about masculinity.’ And the particular pun on ‘ruminate’ and ‘ruminant’ in a book on dairy cows I found particularly repulsive. What he goes on to say is that because gay men cannot have children they suffer from a sense of inadequacy and that my own particular sense of inadequacy has projected me to create this particular fantasy of my father’s life, which he finds bogus and devoid of any truth value whatsoever, save as a projection of some aspect of homosexual inadequacy. The fact that someone would write that review in response to this book in 2003 and the fact that the Times would then print it, when I feel absolutely certain that if someone had made similarly stereotypical and pejorative statements about a Jewish or black or Asian writer that those statements probably wouldn’t have been printed. And if they had been printed, they would have been greeted with vocal outrage. But O’Hagan seems to have gotten away with presenting his homophobia as the high road, as the expression of sentiments which people have somehow been cowed—if I can be more explicit in my own dairy farm pun—into not making by the P.C. police. This review is basically gay-bashing wearing the disguise of culture. Its sentiments have nothing to do with gay people, with me, or with my book. It’s all sadly reactionary and, frankly, a little pathetic on O’Hagan’s part. But the fact that the New York Times Book Review printed it is simply shameful…
 

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Robert Birnbaum is editor-at-large at Identity Theory. All the sketchy details of his life will be (re)fabricated in his memoir-in-progress, Just Talking: How to Do Things With Words. His weblog can be found here. More by Robert Birnbaum